Last Saturday night, I was lucky enough to get to be a volunteer for LitCrawl in San Francisco's famous Clarion Alley. For those who might not be aware of it, San Francisco has had LitQuake since it was founded by book lovers in 1999 as a week long read and fun fest! It wraps up with the LitCrawl, which combines a bar crawl with talks and readings by authors of all types.
I got there early because I'm compulsive and anxious and love knowing where I'm going before I get there. I was supposed to be there for 3:30 setup and got there at 1:30. I had to figure out something to do with the extra time and discovered Cafe Prague. They are a Czech cafe between Clarion Alley and Sycamore Street on Mission. Great food, great people, and an opportunity to try Czech beer! I had a salad, which sounds healthy enough, with HUGE chunks of hot bacon in it which was maybe not as healthy, and beer. I had huge hopes for the beer since I've read that the Czech Republic has the highest per capita beer drinking rate in the world. I had a dark Krusovice which was really quite acceptable. Not as much complexity as I really want, but nevertheless, not a boring beer.
When I had sampled the beer and food enough (what am I a restaurant critic?) I went back out on the street and saw that violence was about to break out. It seems that a fellow was doing business in an area that some others felt proprietary over and they had come en-mass to talk to him. Imagine the scene. The poor guy is standing on the sidewalk with his back toward the buildings. He's been surrounded by six or seven guys, a couple behind him, a couple at his sides, a fellow standing in front of him explaining his mistake, backed up by a couple of more. They're basically filling the sidewalk and I want to go by. The tension is so thick that the air has almost solidified into a rubbery crystal clarity. Some of the fellows are watching their leader talk to the interloper, some are looking around for trouble, one guy looked really stoned and was picking his nose waiting for things to be over. I've been around things like this before, too often, and see that things haven't quite reached a head yet, so I slide through the crowd with that I'm not really here attitude. Really, I'm not sure that they even noticed me drifting through their obstacle course. I wasn't the main attraction! As I'm walking by I hear the leader telling the poor fellow that there's nothing to worry about, nothing's going to happen to him. I see that he wants to believe it, but you could see that he didn't, not really. Not any more than I did. As I walked away I waited--1--2--3--and then from the gasps and reactions around me I knew something had happened. I stepped up against the building so that I wouldn't be in the way of anyone fleeing the scene and saw--Good! They just knocked him out. He's laying--well, I'm not going to say face down because you have an impression of what laying face down means. This guy was out cold and spinning as his face hit the sidewalk. His face is kind of smudged out on the street, he's all twisted up, and one of the guys that had been standing behind him was trying to straighten the poor guy out. It's hard to move an unconscious person. You have no idea. He finally flops him over and pulls him back toward the building. It's obvious he's trying to make the guy look less conspicuous lying there. Maybe dragging him against the building will make him look like a drunk passed out. I don't know. Was he being a good samaritan? He obviously was embarrassed about what had happened. There's all sorts of victims when violence happens, I wish it still bothered me like it once did. He was obviously impelled by fear, looking all around, jittery, then whoosh, he bolts and leaves the guy. Meanwhile the leader is walking by me saying, "We've been done running shit around here!" Strange how odd language can get and still communicate clearly. The victim is starting to come around already. It's hard to knock someone out for very long. Most knock outs are only for seconds. He gets up and staggers off the opposite way. There's a couple of street people by me telling each other how they didn't see anything. They looked like they'd just seen an act at the circus they were so excited. Maybe they did.
So I go into the alley and talk with some artists who are doing some new work, and some others that are fixing their older work that's suffered the depredations of taggers. If you don't know Clarion Alley, then you are probably saying, "Art! What art? I thought this was going to be about literature!" Clarion Alley is filled with murals. CAMP (Clarion Alley Mural Project). I went in on some food from El Toro, at 17th and Valencia for one of the artists who spent his only money on beer and said that being hungry made him a better artist, but now he'd hit the downside of that and was running down.
After awhile people started showing up to set up so I introduced myself and got to work. Pretty soon I was asked to set up the barricade at the Mission end of the alley and then stayed there pretty much from 3:30 until 7:00. It was great fun. I'm bilingual (Spanish and Texan), and was able to get in a lot of great conversations while waiting for cars that had to be let in or out of the alley. Across the way were some drug dealers who were doing a brisk business. It was surprising to see some of the clientèle. Looked like nice moms.
The saddest thing I saw was a whore who was gone in despair and drugs and booze. 21 going on 97. Her face wore a map of her experiences. Way too thin young blond, dirty and raggedy. She was wandering lost, walking down the street out of habit, but you could see she didn't really know where she should be. Somebody sent another hooker to collect her and take her back. I said, "Lookin' good hon!" You'd think it was a pity comment, but it wasn't. Just one human being acknowledging another. You could still see that under all the decay and debris there was something there. What she really needed was a hug without a sub-text, but as compassionate as my heart is, my needs don't include rescuing every victim on the street. When she heard my greeting, she lit up and stood a little taller and then her attention just kind of drifted off down the gutter and she was gone.
I got a lot of the fliers that had the map of all the venues, and then started schmoozing everyone that walked by. Got several groups out for an evening that didn't know about the event all excited and sent them off with maps. I mean, if you're doing a pub crawl anyway, why not add in literature and the chance to follow a treasure map, right? No brainer.
At 6:00 or so Alvin joined me. Alvin was another volunteer and a high point of my night. This young cat lived a life so hard, yet he was kind and caring and quiet. Poverty hadn't broken him, it had refined him. He was signed up for the open mike at 7:00 and was wondering how long it took to read a page. He doubted my assurance that it's a minute a page for double spaced text, so I had him read me a page while I timed him. One minute. His stuff was edgy street stuff that I really wish more people would hear, stuff about getting the GA because otherwise you won't make rent, a story about collecting recycle out of the public bins, and how the old asian ladies get up awfully early so you'd better get up early too. He read well too.
At 7:00 I got released from the end of the alley for Phase 2 and could go listen a bit, interrupted by checking on my replacement and bringing him more flyers and beer. Got to hear Alvin doing his open mike spiel. It was well received. Did I mention free beer? Don't know where that came from, but I'll just say that people from Germany have a great attitude about beer. Thanks Wolf. Then Phase 3 an hour later, brought lots of funny talks and readings. I kept checking on my replacement's replacement and bringing more fliers.
I'm sure the volunteer party afterward was cool, but I missed it. Got on my motorcycle and headed back to San Jose. Next year!